(Some questions at the end about comparative context. Help, please!)
This Wednesday night, Benny Gantz’s period as designated formateur expires. His odds of successfully forming a government look bleak. Nothing has changed to make it any easier than when I last wrote on the topic of government-formation options. And at least one thing has changed to make it harder. It is important to understand that a third election (April 2019, Sept. 2019, and potentially March 2020) is the default if no agreement is reached. There is actually a 21-day period after Gantz’s mandate expires before the election becomes automatic, but there’s scant reason to believe the next 21 days would result in an agreement. (During this 21-day period, it requires 61 Knesset members’ signatures to nominate a PM. Fat chance.)
The change that makes forming a government harder than it was in April or even immediately after the September election is that the bloc that incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) prefers has held tenaciously together. This is the combine of Likud, the two ultra-orthodox lists, and the nationalists that formed the government up until the April election. This bloc lost seats in April, relative to the 2015 election, and lost quite a few more in September. It was a majority when Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was with it, but he pulled out in December, 2018, and has so far adamantly refused to rejoin it from April till now.
However, all the other party leaders in the bloc have steadfastly said that Netanyahu negotiates for all of them. This has foreclosed, so far, any of the rumored defections whereby some party in the bloc would join Gantz and Liberman to help establish a majority coalition without Likud. In fact, one of the member parties of the bloc actually folded itself into Likud, with Naftali Bennet getting the post of Defense Minister in the deal. This move does not change the fact that the bloc has only 55 seats, six short of the minimum needed for a majority government. But it closed off one potential, if unlikely, path that might have led to a breaking of the deadlock.
It seems that the idea of a minority government of Blue and White (the list Gantz heads), which would have to have the support of both Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint [Arab] List, is actually being taken semi-seriously. It still seems unlikely, but Gantz just might go for it if late talks with Netanyahu do not produce an agreement. The best evidence that it is being taken seriously is that Netanyahu has gone verbally ballistic–even by his standards–over the possibility. And while the idea has not been endorsed by Gantz, he has not denied it, either. A government needs only a plurality of Knesset votes to be installed. In other words, abstentions do not count against it.
Still, even though the Joint List would not have cabinet positions in such a case (and thus would not be “in government”), the prospect is fraught with difficulty. Not, I would stress, because the parties are Arab, per se. But because they potentially can be classified as anti-system parties, or as a semi-loyal opposition. Parties that do not accept the fundamental character of the state rarely get any kind of formalized role in backing a minority government in any democracy. (I invite examples, but I can’t think of any.) And it would probably need to be formalized–in a “confidence and supply” agreement–because of one of the ways a government can collapse and early elections be mandated: If a government can’t get supply (i.e., pass a budget). If such an arrangement could be agreed, then a minority government can be stable. It takes 61 votes–a majority–in a constructive no-confidence vote electing a replacement government in order to remove an incumbent cabinet. But the problem is getting it installed and with a supply lifeline in place.
As has been the case since April, the most logical outcome is a “unity” government. But Gantz ran on replacing Netanyahu (policy differences are scant) and he and, even more forcefully, his co-leaders have claimed they will not serve under Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the incumbent is claiming a right to go first as PM in a rotation deal. It would be a little odd to give the priority to the one who came second in votes, though his bloc is indeed the larger one. That bloc again… Netanyahu also wants all the partners to be included, which implies Blue and White would be just an appendage to a right-wing government. B&W got lots of votes from leftist voters, despite what we would normally call a center-right party positioning. So Gantz’s lack of enthusiasm is understandable.
Of course, Netanyahu wants to go first because he still may be indicted at some point in the near future. His time horizon is a bit short! B&W might need to insist on a legal change that would ensure Netanyahu would step down if indicted, but one can imagine this is going to be a hard pledge to extract.
Another possibility not to be ruled out is Liberman going back to the right-wing bloc. He has dug in hard enough that I actually don’t think this is likely. But if he gets compromises he can sell to his voters, he might do it. He does not exactly have a record of being the most consistent politician.
A third election might not change much. The five polls so far since the last election have not shown much movement of voter support. What movement they have shown has been somewhat downward for the Bibi Bloc in the three most recent polls. It may be relevant here that only the first of these polls showed Liberman’s party losing ground, and the two most recent ones show him gaining one. (The second and fifth polls in the sequence are by the same pollster.)
Will there be a deal? Who knows!
Finally, this all leads me to some questions:
- In other parliamentary democracies, how common is it for parties that ran separately in an election to negotiate as a bloc (delegating the largest party thereof as negotiator for them all) after the election?
- How common is it for parties that could be classified as “anti-system” or “semi-loyal” to be the outside support parties to a minority cabinet?
- Are there any other cases of something that may yet happen here, in which the one designated as formateur agrees to be in a cabinet but not its (first) head?